Can Virtue Be Taught?

“My days were spent in close attention, that I might more speedily master the language; and I may boast that I improved more rapidly than the Arabian, who understood very little and conversed in broken accents, whilst I comprehended and could imitate almost every word that was spoken.

“While I improved in speech, I also learned the science of letters as it was taught to the stranger, and this opened before me a wide field for wonder and delight.

“The book from which Felix instructed Safie was Volney’s Ruins of Empires. I should not have understood the purport of this book had not Felix, in reading it, given very minute explanations. He had chosen this work, he said, because the declamatory style was framed in imitation of the Eastern authors. Through this work I obtained a cursory knowledge of history and a view of the several empires at present existing in the world; it gave me an insight into the manners, governments, and religions of the different nations of the earth. I heard of the slothful Asiatics, of the stupendous genius and mental activity of the Grecians, of the wars and wonderful virtue of the early Romans—of their subsequent degenerating—of the decline of that mighty empire, of chivalry, Christianity, and kings. I heard of the discovery of the American hemisphere and wept with Safie over the hapless fate of its original inhabitants.

“These wonderful narrations inspired me with strange feelings. Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous and magnificent, yet so vicious and base? He appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle and at another as all that can be conceived of noble and godlike. To be a great and virtuous man appeared the highest honour that can befall a sensitive being; to be base and vicious, as many on record have been, appeared the lowest degradation, a condition more abject than that of the blind mole or harmless worm. For a long time I could not conceive how one man could go forth to murder his fellow, or even why there were laws and governments; but when I heard details of vice and bloodshed, my wonder ceased and I turned away with disgust and loathing.[1]

The words recorded here are not the reflections of a typical classical education, however much it appropriately reflects one. Instead, these are the reflections of Frankenstein’s monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Despite his excellent, albeit brief, education, and his self-expressed admiration of virtue and his disgust at human vice, the monster soon after embarks on a vindictive murder-binge aimed not only at destroying human life but seeking to destroy the very will and soul of his creator, Frankenstein. How can one educated to love the good and loathe the evil so quickly turn towards the practice of such intense villainy? The narrative that follows leaves many other such questions in the mind of the reader. Chief among the questions that this book raises in my own, however, is one quite central to our task as classical Christian educators: Can virtue be taught?

If you have heard anyone talk at all about classical Christian education, you have certainly heard them say that classical Christian education is about the cultivation of wisdom and virtue. Nearly any book on the modern resurgence of classical Christian education will define CCE with these terms. For example, Martin Cothran has defined classical Christian education as “the cultivation of wisdom and virtue through the study of the great books and the development of basic critical thinking skills to pass on and preserve Western civilization.” Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain assert that “[t]he seven liberal arts are the established paths that tutor the reason and train the mind in virtue.” Clark and Jain trace this training in virtue back to the ancients, positing that “[e]ducation was enculturation in piety, virtue, wisdom, and grace, and the curriculum served the culture.” Certainly virtue (arete, excellence for the Greeks) was a key theme in Greek—and later Roman—philosophy. Aristotle spends much of his Nicomachean Ethics exploring the topic of virtue, proposing that excellence is the mean between excess and deficiency (or defect). If virtue, then, has been so central to classical philosophy and to attempts to resurrect classical education in our context, would not the answer to our question, “Can virtue be taught?”, be quickly answered yes? Unfortunately, the question and its answer are not so simple.

In the video below, I pose the question about whether virtue can be taught and then proceed to explore a collection of ancient sources that address the question of virtue and whether or not it can be taught. I look first and primarily at Plato’s Meno, but then I also consider his Protagoras, Aristophanes’ The Clouds, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae.

The video was created as a humanities lecture for students at School of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Missouri.

[1]Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 95-96.

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